Author

Ben Southwood

Ben Southwood has 16 articles published.

Zelman Meats, St. Paul’s

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Why is it so hard for restaurants to expand? So often do I have a meal at the second or third branch of a chain and find it lacklustre or not up to the standards I built up in my mind. And yesterday’s meal at Zelman Meats in St. Paul’s, the fourth branch of the proto-chain, was yet another case where the latest outpost of a restaurant brand did not impress me.

First, I’ll be clear that I really like and endorse what the whole group around Zelman is doing. I’ve never been to Goodman, and given that Knife in Clapham has the same hard-to-get meat supplier and costs half the price, I probably never will go, but it seems like what you want from a high-end steakhouse. I loved Rex & Mariano and when it was cruelly taken from us, I was a fan of its replacement, the original Zelman Meats in Soho. London needs more steak restaurants that don’t cost an arm and a leg. Basically, this restaurant group has its heart in the right place, and often delivers the goods.

And if Zelman Meats’s city branch was a cheap and cheerful Flat Iron affair, I’d probably be recommending it heartily. But if you’re going to spend at least £100 on dinner and drinks between two, you expect something special, at least if you’re me, and special is what Zelman didn’t deliver.

Look, maybe tempura does technically include any type of batter, I am no expert, but what I am expecting when I am offered tempura prawns is the gloriously light-coloured and light-textured batter familiar to all who have had it once. This was more like beer batter. Beer-battered prawns are a perfectly good thing, although these were slightly overcooked, but it is always frustrating when you don’t get what you expect.

As usual, the “holy fuck” mayo was basically just orange mayo, and I would have preferred that the lime flavour was in there, as wetting the batter with the lime segments sacrifices some of its crunch, and never gives you the distribution of flavour as you’re hoping for.

The burrata was a bit better. Smaller than the gigantic lumps you’re used to, but cheaper too, and that’s probably an overall better trade. I’d say it was considerably less wet and creamy, and therefore more like regular mozzarella than I’ve had before, but it did the job. The only real problem was a severe lack of the promised pesto (you can barely see it in the picture)—just a smearing underneath. Give us a bit more and let us decide if we want it all!

The chips ranged from excellent to completely undercooked. As ever, the parmesan and black truffle topping is a great idea, but I had an unshakeable sense that it was less truffly than I remembered. Obviously in a dish like this I don’t expect big thick shavings onto my plate—I’m only paying £8.50—but this had a great truffle smell without much of a discernible truffle taste. Maybe it was the end of a jar.

On the other hand, both sauces—béarnaise and chimichurri—were great. The chimichurri was a bit different to what I am used to (mainly because it was blended) but I found myself dipping and dipping till it was all gone.

But I’ve gone all this time without talking about what you came for, the steak. Now the good is that you buy per 100g—chateaubriand is £9.50/100g, and picanha is £6.50. That above is 300g of each, which is about enough for two people.

The steak was not bad. But we paid nearly £50; for that, it needed to be excellent—it needed to be worth five flat iron steaks from Flat Iron! And it just wasn’t.

Firstly, it was cooked inconsistently. There were big veins of grey “gradient” in the chateaubriand (left) around the nice medium rare parts, and the two end pieces were grey, tough, and grainy. Even if you are committed to grilling your steak from start to finish, there is no need for this, and if you are willing to cook the middle and the outside separately you can get perfect end to end medium rare every time. I can do it myself!

And secondly, it lacked flavour. Yes, we had sauces, but good steak tastes really good on its own. Chateaubriand is £25/kg (vs Zelman’s £95/kg) in Turner & George, the best butcher near me, and tastes really beefy. Obviously I do not object to restaurants charging more for food—they prepare it for me—but they are not adding anything close to £70 of value. Or they weren’t yesterday.

And so I left Zelman having had some decent, adequate stuff, but spending £42 a head for two courses without so much as a sip of booze. That’s not big bucks but it’s still a decent chunk of change for a not at all extravagant lunch! To go back to Knife, my bill there was just a little more and I drank a bottle of wine, ate three courses, snacks, bread, and much more. So yes, I was more than a little disappointed.

Rating: No medals.

Pique-Nique, Bermondsey

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I’ll start with the most important point: Pique-Nique does the finest chicken I’ve eaten in London, and by extension, ever. It has a lovely and extremely French atmosphere, it’s very reasonably priced for what it is, and you will leave happy and full. All you really need to know is that you should go.

But since that would make for a fairly boring review, I’ll go into detail on exactly how they get rotisserie chicken so right, transmogrifying it from a solid but unexciting street food or takeaway option into an ambrosial delight.

The warm, crispy, chewy bread

First, it’s the chickens. People probably do spend too much time talking about where food comes from, possibly it’s just something to nerd out about and show off what you know. But Bresse chicken is a resounding blow in favour of caring about provenance.

These chickens live 120 days or so, compared to the supermarket standard 42, or 80-odd for the very highest-end free range chicken, making them the free range of free range. They roam around beautiful rolling hills and are deliberately fed only lightly so they seek out insects to eat. And it comes through. They are unimaginably deeply flavoured and delicious compared to regular chicken—a comparison that perhaps comes close is that the breast tastes, throughout, like normal chicken’s crispy skin. And the skin, well!

Mashed potato, girolles, and breast

Second, I think it’s the preparation. Everything is precise and perfect. Properly juicy chicken, presumably from the steady turning on the spit, but coupled with bone dry crispy skin. Maximally creamy and finely riced mashed potato. Served simply with morels and a creamy sauce. Heavily reduced red wine sauce; warm, crispy, chewy, pully-aparty French bread, a clear but powerfully, er, chicken-y consomme. Fluffy chestnut soufflé. You get the idea.

Chicken consomme

Third, I think it’s the whole approach. Simple, comforting, hearty, delicious. We ate the £41 Bresse chicken tasting menu. You start with a glorious little croquette of shredded chicken with a sweet-sour chutney of some sort, with a cute bone sticking out. Then you get bread with pate—just out of the oven and they keep offering you more until you eventually find a backbone of resistance. If, like me, you abhor liver pate, they just happen to have expertly browned butter in reserve, unmentioned.

Chicken croquettes

Then you get the consomme, which comes with offal on a stick above it. I don’t know if these people are geniuses or if they owe it to their extremely expensive poultry, but the gizzard, heart, and even that wobbly thing on top of the chicken’s head (yes we ate that) were scrumptious, again packed full of savoury depth and punch.

Thigh, drumstick, red wine reduction, and salad

After the consomme you get the aforementioned breast of the chicken. But you’re still going! Soon you are presented with the bouncy, firm thigh and leg and their skin, with a sharply-dressed salad and a shiny and lip-smacking winey jus. I, personally, would confit those chicken legs. I prefer that melt-away soft texture to the more aggressive meaty firmness here, but I’m sure others agree.

Chestnut soufflé

You even get to choose what dessert you’d like. We had an entirely anonymous chocolate fondant, no better or worse than one you’d get anywhere, and a glorious chestnut soufflé, totally changing my mind on whether they are just a way to ostentatiously display cooking skills.

For me, chicken has always been a second-tier meat. I believed it was more of a canvas for flavour than the main flavour itself. Well, Pique-Nique shows my old views for the distilled wrongness I now know them to be.

(Two medals.)

Black Axe Mangal, Islington

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Usually I go to restaurants just the one time before I review them. I don’t think this is unfair. I always share dishes with dining companions, so I’ll usually managed to try a fair swathe of—or even most of—the menu. But I’m glad I went to Black Axe Mangal thrice before writing anything, because it’s gotten better every time, to the point where it’s an easily one of my very favourites and, since I live nearby, there is always a fighting chance I will consider going on a given evening.

Black Axe Mangal doesn’t take bookings, but it doesn’t need them because it’s tiny. It can fit about 16, squashed together, inside, and six or maybe eight outside on little painted metal tables if it’s warm. It has a giant wood-fired stone oven for pizza-esque “flatbreads”, and it always always plays very loud punk or metal. They are good primarily because they craft a glorious, awe-inspiring menu, and everything delivers on its promise, with the punchiest most blow-your-head-off flavour you’ve ever eaten. I promise.

Just look at that. Absolutely everything is something you’ve never tried before and want to try. And by the next time you’re there, even if it’s just a couple of months, it’ll be mostly different, the epitome of what you want in a “neighbourhood restaurant”: somewhere you want to—and can afford to go to—regularly.

Crispy fuckin rabbit was essentially a mutton roll, but with rabbit. It was cooked until tender, then pressed together, breaded, and fried. It came with a chunky red blob of spicy jarred peppers blended up, and a lime. It was perfect.

Fried pigs ears with black lime was basically pork scratchings or rinds but less fatty: just the brittle crispy crunch element. And once again it was powerfully flavoured, with just the right amount of salt (a lot) and the wincy citrusof black (i.e. dried out) lime. In a good way.

Black Axe Mangal like serving things with crisps. On an earlier visit I got ox cheek with them. This time they came with a beef tartare (extremely tender) with bone marrow. If you’re reading this team, next time I want more bone marrow. Its flavour was just a hint, rather than the overpowering beefiness I wanted. But it provided a wonderful fatty lubricant. I don’t know what was on top.

The best dish of the night, and of a previous night, when the same spice coated chicken wings, was the half guinea fowl. I’m telling you: you need to try this mission spice. It’s spicy, numbing, salty, umami, and just… delicious all at once. It’s so full of pep and vigour that your eyes are almost watering. It kind of punches you. I’ve really never had anything like it—apparently they use special sichuan peppers that are much better than the kind that plebs like me buy in Chinatown. But however they do it, they know how to fry poultry till the outside is crisp, yet the inside is juicy, without being fatty or greasy. This is the optimal guinea fowl, I’ll put my name to that.

I’ve eaten a whole lot of other stuff there. Pictured above is a lamb offal flatbread. But I won’t go on about it: the story is the same. Lots of flavour. The correct price. Interesting ideas you haven’t eaten before. If it’s bread: warm and fluffy and right out of the oven. I love this place and I feel rather lucky it’s more or less the closest restaurant to my flat.

Two medals.

Temper City, Bank

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You reviewed us on our soft launch with a 50% discount ? You massive, massive prick. The point of a soft launch is to iron out problems, hence the discount. Please go fuck yourself you unprofessional tosser.

Update: Temper’s owner disagreed with our review, and had the above to say. I stand by the review, and think it’s clear that the price/portion offering is not affected by the fact that it was a soft launch. As I said, if the dishes were significantly larger, or significantly cheaper, I would recommend the place. You can decide for yourself.

My dinner at the original Temper, in Soho, was probably my favourite meal of 2016—and I told founder Neil Rankin as much over the bar as he went about chopping and smoking large bits of goat in the restaurant’s shiny and beautiful central kitchen.

But I was not impressed with its new sister restaurant Temper City, and not for any quirks to do with the fact I went during a soft launch. The staff were friendly and efficient, and if some of them were still working on their knowledge of the menu then who cares, that’s what you expect. The kitchen got everything right, I’m sure, and when they didn’t they told us in advance that they were redoing our dishes. These sorts of growing pains are why they charge you half price and even if they didn’t they would hardly bother me.

No, it was the approach in general that didn’t quite come off. It certainly wasn’t bad, but had I paid full price I would have felt a little bit ripped off.

To begin with, I was surprised they had gone for a curry-based concept. I so confidently assumed that it’d be a rerun of the huge-smoked-pieces-of-quality-meat concept in the Soho original that I didn’t follow any of the news around the opening; I just booked as soon as booking lines were opened, and slavered away happily in anticipation. Actually, the curry-ness of the place can be overstated. There’s still a huge smoker and extractor fan in the middle, and they still offer substantial meat chunks with deep smoky flavours.

It was the price-to-portion ratio that confused me most.

These “crab beignet” puff pastries were delicate, expert, and came with a lovely sweet jam and sour cream, or maybe mayo, but they were £8.50! This is for something with almost no substance and the size of a man’s thumb.

The “Korean haggis”—a mix of coarsely minced or finely chopped duck offal with gochuchang, radishes and chillies, was more substantial, and was delicious and fun to eat wrapped in baby gem as well. But it was £12 for two or three solid mouthfuls! Come on!

The curry plates boasted an array of ingredients, and array they did have, but most of them were pointless. The tomatoes were a bit sad, the potatoes were a bit bland, and while the crunchy sweet nutty salad was lovely, I’m not sure how it combined with the others. The paratha was unbelievably pillowy, but there was barely a handful of (really excellent) goat, and we started with little idea of how to combine the ingredients together in more lettuce wraps, hidden under the mint. Plus it was £17. Is this supposed to be a main that fills you up? I think you’d need two of them, making a meal here an incredible indulgence.

The lamb skewers with kimchi were great, but—I know, I’m a broken record—they were £15. One of them was minced lamb (cheap), and while the other had two substantial cubes of lovely meat, it also had two big pieces of kidney (dirt cheap). Is it really unfeasible to offer a third? I can’t deny the loveliness of the sauce, where kimchi was balanced against a mild mayonnaise or some other creamy base.

We opted for peach, condensed milk, and roti for dessert. It’s a good combo, but I’m not sure they’re quite ready with their roti—these seem like the kind of thing that might get better. It was a bit flat; it didn’t have the bouncy life of a (much cheaper, much bigger) one I had at Roti King just weeks ago.

I hate to criticise Temper because I am a huge huge fan of the approach in so many ways. And I even kinda hope this one does well—maybe prices have to be higher in the City. But I won’t be going along at full price. I’ll be going for Sunday lunch at the original spot. (No medals.)

Craft, North Greenwich

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Up until Craft opened, there was absolutely no prospect of an interestingly good meal by the O2 Arena. I mean, that wasn’t the point of the O2, and it’s not clear to me that anyone really minded—events usually start too early to enjoy a proper restaurant meal anyway, you’re perfectly happy to have something cheap and cheerful.

But Craft opened to much aplomb in mid-2015, with a chef whose name was bandied about as if you were supposed to have independently heard of him (well I have now), and it was widely loved. People especially liked taking videos of themselves bashing open the hard clay coating their whole roasted duck—something I’m not criticising as gimmicks really do make things fun. Sadly it’s off the menu at the moment.

Craft does a pretty good job of creating atmosphere despite the fact it’s a three story glass-edged blob plopped in the middle of an empty, windy, usually-empty plaza—the gap between North Greenwich tube and the arena itself. The room was very expensively bedecked by someone who is apparently famous and world-conquering, but it’s not really to my taste: something about it is janky and forced.

We plumped for the £35 short tasting menu—there’s a £55 option as well—which would really be a good deal if the food hadn’t been disappointing: snacks, endless fantastic bread (chewy flatbread straight out of the oven, competent airy sourdough, and cultured fermented-tasting butter), and three courses proper, all solid portions and high end ingredients.

They do everything, seemingly, in-house, which does impress me. The ham was consistently textured in a way that supermarket stuff never does: it didn’t come apart in sections and you could bite right through. The middle one—whipped roe with caviar—was probably the nicest and most interesting thing we ate: that sea floor graininess you are looking for. I honestly can’t remember the third.

The starter was a cheddar custard with crumbs and veg. It was OK—I think I’m biased because I never want my cheese as custard, I want it as cheese. It was a bit like welsh rarebit.

Both of the mains were severely underseasoned and totally unimpressive. Yes, this hake was cooked well, but without seemingly ever being introduced to any salt it tasted of nothing at all. I cannot believe this is just my tastebuds failing me. What’s more, the accompanying veg (with the exception of burnt hispi cabbage, which literally cannot be bad) was just veg, like if you’d scraped out your fridge leftovers and lightly boiled them simply to make up space in a weeknight dinner.

The beef was worse. It was a decent-sized and well-cooked flat iron steak, and it was tender. That’s what I can say in its favour. But it was also drastically underflavoured,and tasted like the grey beef in a school dinner. I didn’t really know you could make high-end beef taste this mediocre. The broth was like a really weak watered stock cube, with a good deal less in the way of punch. It was lukewarm almost immediately. The less said about the random assorted veg the better.

I didn’t finish my dessert. It was extremely bland and commonplace carrot cake that was literally just the ginger cake you buy for £1 in a supermarket. And it came with sour cream. Sour cream! The ice cream was… ice cream. If it was specially home crafted rare milk ice cream it didn’t show.

My companion doesn’t like hazelnut, and they were kind enough to let her pick a different dessert (in fact, the service was extremely good throughout). It was rhubarb jam on some thin, brittle meringue sheets. I just don’t like this kind of meringue, it seems to dry the mouth out with a pervasive sandy dustiness. So take my opinion with a pinch of salt. The rhubarb jam had all the tangy rhubarb flavour seemingly sucked out of it, and could have done with more sweetness.

I had heard only good things about Craft, and every element seemed to have been thought through: design, sourcing, concept, menu, pricing, even website design. But I would not recommend anyone go. Even if a chef had a day off, that’s the sort of quality control that a restaurant charging at least £100 for dinner for two should not accept. I always thought I could guess if a place would be good based only on cues available before you get to the restaurant—I hope this is the exception that proves the rule.

Rating: Avoid.

Anglo, Perilla & much much more

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The SUL site has been quiet, but that doesn’t mean we’ve not been eating out and updating the map with our favourite spots. Sometimes you just don’t find yourself with a whole review’s worth of things to say about places, or the time to say them. So I’m just going to round up the dozen or so new places I’ve tried in the quiet winter months.

Anglo, Farringdon

I wanted to go to Anglo since it opened. It’s obvious, but there’s something luxurious and special about an endless progression of courses. However, most of the restaurants that are designed around trying lots of different dishes in succession, rather than simultaneously, are prohibitively expensive. I’m very happy for the people who can afford £100 tasting menus, but they do not include me.

Anglo’s £45 price point, on the other hand, is occasionally affordable. And for that price, at Anglo, you are served three little tasters—which seem much more generous and course-like than the snacks served elsewhere—four savouries, three sweets, and bread that’s easily as good as any of the other courses, so let’s count it: eleven different things to eat. That’s a bargain.

Compared to my favourite restaurants at this price point (i.e. The Dairy) I didn’t love everything I was served. A lot of it was interesting rather than comforting. An example is the burnt leek tartlet below, which was a play of textures: a dazzlingly light and airy set of shavings (?) on top and an impressively thin and crisp-yet-soft many-layered pastry base. It was fun to eat, but not delicious, and most of the vegetable dishes followed the same pattern: intriguing, but perhaps not always a success.

By contrast, the meat dishes were universally satisfying, in a savoury umami way. Beef with smoked emulsion and turnip was exactly the sort of steadying dish I needed in the middle of the meal, with its chunk of… beefy native breed steak. I can imagine going back. (One medal.)

Perilla, Stoke Newington

By contrast, all of the combinations at Perilla came off perfectly, and two could probably eat dinner for £100 including drinks and service. It was a succession of ideas you’d never consider yourself, but that seemed to just… work.

Pictured is the red mullet with lardo, a zingy vinegary emulsion, and chopped bits of dressed radicchio. Radicchio is extremely bitter, even to someone who can’t taste PTC like me, but in the dish the whole outweighed the sum of its parts. When combined with the intensely salty and savoury cured fat, the sweet and sharp vinaigrette, and the warming fish flesh, it was a noticeable, but blunted high and clean flavour.

Waiting staff are friendly and helpful, the ambiance is dim and buzzy in the right way, and it’s also in walking distance of my house. Wins all round. (One medal.)

Aster, Victoria

Victoria was pretty much a dead zone for restaurants until the last three months, but in 2017 it’s probably had more good openings than anywhere else. There’s a Bleecker Burger, a Shake Shack, a Franco Manca, and a Bone Daddies is coming, to begin with, but it’s not just chains. There’s Hai Cenato, a new Jason Atherton, there’s The Other Naughty Piglet, there’s Lorne, there are a few giant but fairly unexciting-looking all-day brasserie type places. And there’s Aster, a Nordic-influenced place, which has opened to little aplomb.

Aster is pretty ambitious, doing all the sorts of stuff that, in general, make a place good. And it does it fairly competently—perhaps unsurprisingly given that it’s yet another outpost of the imperialistic D&D group. This dish below was an excellent combination of flavours: milk-fed lamb with lingonberry jam and a cabbage leaf surprisingly filled with moist and savoury lamb mince.

But it fell down on some of the details: I was warned that the lamb would be pink, but it was white; the fat was slightly rubbery and insufficiently rendered; and there was none of the browning, caramelisation, and crisping-up I’d want on the outside. But it was still a very nice dish.

The desserts were even busier: I ate blood orange jam & curd, almond cake, rhubarb sorbet, and so many individual nice inputs really does make the dessert more fun. For the price, I wouldn’t go regularly, but it’s by no means or in any way a bad place to go. (No medals.)

Comptoir Gascon, Clerkenwell

Comptoir Gascon has been going a while, compared to most restaurants I go to: its (positive) Jay Rayner review comes from about 2005. To keep afloat all that time, I wagered it must have been decent, and based on what we had I’d say it was just that: decent. Generically competent steaks, an indulgent foie gras burger as a starter, and acceptable puddings. A caveat is that it’s supposedly a duck restaurant, and none of us ate duck—we booked to have steak—so perhaps the duck is really where it stands out. But on the back of the beef, no medals. (No medals.)

Mangal 2, Dalston

Some people will tell you that basically all the Turkish grill restaurants on and around Kingsland Road, in Haggerston, Dalston and Stoke Newington, are good. Others say there are especially good, and less good ones. Mangal 2 is famous because of its bolshy and amusing Twitter account. I’d say the food here was solid, but for me (a neophyte in this cuisine in any case) Umut 2000 just down the road sets the standard.

Everything we had did the job, and there were even some novel dishes, like the below—not a fish, despite the mouth-like slit at the end; in fact chunks of lamb inside a charred aubergine—but it just wasn’t anything special. Yes, pieces of deep fried chicken and grilled lamb are enjoyable, but all I could think about was the juicy, full flavoured, and extremely good value offering at its competitor. (No medals.)

Tandoor Chop House, Covent Garden

Based only on my meal at Tandoor Chop House I’d be a zealous convert. It’s a simple offering: pieces of meat, cooked pink, in Indian spices, with smoky and sweet dips. What more do you want, except tender tandoored cuts of beef and lamb (and chicken, though we didn’t have any)? Well, maybe butter naan, but they do that too. You can even see into the kitchen and into the gigantic pots with skewers poking out of them. However, the experience Chris Pople had when the head chef was on holiday makes me extremely wary of going back. (No medals.)

Umut 2000, Dalston

My favourite ocakbasi as of this point. £30 for the special which is infinite bread, a huge amount of meze, and a pile of meat that is absolutely unfinishable for two people. That’s £30 between you, not £30 each. You get grilled chicken pieces, minced chicken kebab, minced lamb kebab, chicken on the bone, lamb on the bone, and grilled lamb pieces. It’s juicy, meaty, and has that coal barbecued exterior that you’re looking for. Highly recommended. (One medal.)

Lucky Chip, Dalston

I went into Lucky Chip optimistic: no, I hadn’t seen a review from one of the more reliable reviewers, like Burgaffair; no, I don’t think that burger places should offer hot dogs—there’s absolutely no reason to believe they can do both well; and no, I don’t understand why you’d want a ‘burgers and wine’ restaurant (although the beer selection is very good too). In fact, although I did go in optimistic, maybe it was just because I escaped off the horrific Ridley Road market where Lucky Chip is located. In any case, it’s mediocre all round. I could do all of the elements better myself. (Avoid.)

Yamagoya, Soho

Yamagoya is taking up the top floor of Shuang Shuang, the conveyor belt Chinese hotpot place that opened to fairly significant aplomb, but that barely anyone talks about now. They want their own spot, but for the time being they’re a pop-up, serving slightly overpriced but solid ramen. Something I’d never had before was the chicken chashu, which is like pork chashu, except drier and blander (without actually reaching dryness and blandness). (One medal.)

Tacos El Pastor, London Bridge

I’m going to go back to Tacos El Pastor before I make any rating “official” but on the strength of the quick lunch I had there I do actually want to go back. Everything has that pickled onion and lime balance between sweetness and sour acidity, but somehow coming in a hundred different ways from different fruits and salsas and meat rubs. And of course theres a lot of juicy, tender, and smoky slow-cooked meat. It’s hard not to like.

You know how Jay Rayner does those little bullet points at the bottom of his pieces? Well I’m going to copy him here with some (even) shorter comments on other places I’ve eaten recently.

  • Casse-Croûte, Bermondsey I don’t understand how anyone couldn’t love Casse-Croûte. It’s basically like teleporting to France. It’s buzzing, full of kids staying up well past a British bed time, and it sells only rustic regional French food like whole cheeses baked in pastry and cassoulet with confit duck and bits of slow cooked pork belly with the bone still in. It even has champagne and cremant on tap! I went back recently and had an even better meal than my first visit.
  • Florentine, South Lambeth Florentine is a new opening that I was tempted to for brunch (I don’t see the point of brunch & this was my first ever in London) by a 50% off offer. It seems decently ambitious and competent, with space for near-infinite covers, hundreds of staff and different kitchen items, and a location (right by South Lambeth tube) that presents little in the way of restaurant competition. But all I did was eat a gigantic four person breakfast including an entire ostrich egg (24 hen eggs worth of egg), but between two.
  • Som Saa, Spitalfields I first went to Som Saa when it was a pop-up at Climpson’s Arch nearly three years ago, but never managed to make it to the real restaurant in Spitalfields. But Sam kept bugging me and bugging me and bugging me, going back again and again and telling me it was the best restaurant in town, and eventually I made it. They really do produce food as good as the best places I visited in Bangkok recently.
  • Picture, Fitzrovia I’ve now been to the Fitzrovia branch of Picture three times! This time was me seeking after another deal: it was half off due to the tube strike; some diners had had to cancel. Picture is less experimental than say, Anglo, but I think this works to its credit: every or nearly every dish is something to enjoy on a simple, happy level. I’d go back a fourth time, but perhaps I’ll try their Marylebone branch out first.
  • A Wong, Pimlico I have something of an obsession with A Wong, and I do think it will earn three medals soon, when I finally go and get its Peking Duck special menu. Indeed, it may well be my favourite restaurant, and is certainly in my top ten. I’ve been for the regular food, I’ve been for the cheap lunch/early dinner menu with work, and now I’ve been for the dim sum, only available at lunch. They really are amazingly special and expertly prepared, especially the duck egg yolk custard dessert dumpling, which is the best pudding I’ve had in a year.
  • Ramen Sasuke, St. James Sasuke’s other joint in Soho is on our map because I’ve been there three or four times and had lovely tonkotsu without even bothering to try their soy or fish-based ramens. Their meat is always a bit fatty, but it’s a nice contrast to the other options out there. But the dish I had at the newer Panton Street one, next to the mighty Kanada-Ya, would push me to a strong avoid. Oily thin broth, packet-seeming noodles; just rubbish stuff. I didn’t finish it.
  • Bleecker Street, Victoria Bleecker is my favourite burger spot, and since they’ve opened a location right by Victoria station, near my work, I have eaten there at least five times. £10 may seem a lot of money for a burger (their signature Bleecker Black—you can get a cheaper burger for £6 if you like) because it is a lot of money for a burger. But it’s worth every penny: medium rare patties, unbelievably juicy and tender because they are 50% fat; soft crumbly Irish black pudding; American cheese; consistent sesame bun that can take the Grease punishment without falling apart. It’s all there. Among the best food in the world.
  • Flat Iron, Shoreditch I’d been to the Soho and Covent Garden Flat Irons many times, and the Shoreditch one does not depart from the basic formula: £10 for a flat iron steak, cooked a limited number of ways, £3.50 for (glorious) beef dripping chips, free side salad, cheap cocktails. If you want it to be, then Flat Iron is a cheap—nay, excellent value—steak house. But if you want it to be, it’s also a city-beating high end steakhouse: we ordered from the specials menu and boy oh boy the wagyu bavette we eat was surely the nicest steak I’ve ever had. Indeed, even though we’d over-ordered to begin with, we immediately ordered a second one when we finished.

Temper, Kiln, and Smokestak

in Restaurants by

There are tens of thousands of restaurants in London. Even if you spend an outsized fraction of your disposable income on eating out—as I do—it’s impossible to keep up with more than a sliver of the ones you want to go to most.

I have four or five lists on my phone of the places I want to visit most. And when I discover somewhere particularly good (as Kiln, Smokestak, and Temper all are) I want to go back—not just because it’s a good meal and eating out is a great pleasure, but also because I haven’t tried everything on the menu yet. How can I have reliable opinion if there’s something they cook I have yet to eat.

A huge number of widely-hyped restaurants opened in 2016. I have yet to visit Perilla, Ellory, either iteration of Bao, the new (or any) Barrafina, The Laughing Heart, Padella, Som Saa’s permanent location, Sardine, The Frog, Anglo, The Woodford, or Frenchie, let alone dozens of other, less exciting, but still interesting openings. By next year, I’ll be even further behind.

But I did manage to get to three of those I most wanted to visit, and hopefully you are less obsessively completist than me, and you can simply enjoy these lovely places without worrying you’re missing out on the others.

Kiln, Soho

I was super excited about Kiln. I don’t know what it was that made it so obvious it was going to be great. It’s from people behind the Smoking Goat, which I love, but it wasn’t just that. I was so excited I queued up to go on their first night, when they were offering a free set menu.

Everything was excellent—we started with lamb skewers that were actually better than those at the almighty Silk Road in Camberwell—and it maintained that standard. The fat is jammed together with incredibly tender pieces of protein, grilled above charcoal, and rubbed with cumin and chilli powder. And you pay £2.90 for two of them.

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I don’t quite understand how they achieve such reasonable prices (dishes that are basically small mains go in the range £6 to £8, unless they’re using some expensive seafood ingredient). Perhaps it’s the fact there are only a few tables (reservable for parties of 4+) and most everyone else sits at the bar.

They operate a queueing system where you don’t actually have to be there: put your name down and they give you a link to an online counter, showing you how far you are from the front. We went off to have a drink somewhere else in the two hours we had to kill.

Even more challenging dishes work well. River fish is in a gritty, intensely-flavoured broth that somehow tastes like the soily edge of a riverbed… in a good way. You think that the pork belly and brown crab rice noodles—warmly savoury—are good as they are but they come with a sweet and refreshing green sauce (whose provenance I can’t divine) that’s so good you just have to lick its serving bowl clean.

Everything is fantastic. The place is buzzing. Staff are effective and not overbearing. The menu is a delight, changing regularly. Did I say that the pricing is rather competitive. Go asap. (Two medals.)

Temper, Soho

Apparently, everyone else has and had heard of Neil Rankin, the man behind Temper, but I had not. So I did not realise that I was chatting with the proprietor—wearing a red trucker hat—when I ate at Temper. Either way, I’m glad I told him that his eatery was my favourite opening of the year, because it is. It ticks every box that I’ve asked for in a restaurant.

Meat is sold by the 100g, and they tell you the (rare) breed. They put MSG in their ketchup. You can sprinkle bits of fried and ground up pork scratching on your food. They grill large slabs of flesh over basically open fires, in an open kitchen right in the middle of the room. They use animal fats in their vegetable dishes. Their menu fits (easily) on one page. They even base their cocktails around mezcal.

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The theme is flatbreads and meat. Basically you buy (smoked, medium rare, tender, extremely meaty) bits of meat, then add sauces and “sprinkles”, sort-of wrap them up, and eat. This, alone, would be enough. But there are also sides—beef fat potatoes utterly covered in raclette cheese was one of the highlights—and in keeping with the theme, starter tacos which range even further (e.g. blowtorched mackerel).

Eating dinner in a restaurant is nearly always a pleasure, but sometimes it’s a glorious all-out reminder of why life is good. My meal at Temper was one of those. (Two medals.)

Smokestak, Shoreditch

Smokestak is an opening in the same vein as Kiln and Temper: long pedigree of previous ventures (in this case, years running a street food stall); widely hyped by the London food crowd; and in possession of a sort-of gimmick. In Smokestak’s case it’s the gigantic, gleaming, smoker in the middle of the room.

I think others have said that Smokestak is London barbecue food coming of age, and I agree. I remember a time when I’d never heard of pulled pork—when I was eighteen and I stumbled into a colonial canteen in the middle of nowhere in Virginia—and totally bowled over by the food. Now, it’s ubiquitous and usually shit. But you can get excellent barbecue in Shotgun, Pitt Cue, and many non-specialist restaurants have smokers and know how to use them.

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Smokestak possibly doesn’t do the best brisket in London (although it comes very close, and will serve you a reasonable portion for £8) but it is a very solid all round addition to the scene. Sweet sticky smoky bbq pig tails were crunchy goodness, but my absolute favourite dish was smoked girolles on beef dripping toast. It came in a jus whose deep powerful flavour must have come from litres of stock, reduced to almost nothing. I will go back. (One medal.)

Where else I’ve been eating this Summer & Autumn

in Uncategorized by

Anzu, St. James

Tonkotsu is a pretty good ramen restaurant named after the Japanese word for the pork broth you often have with your noodles (as opposed to tonkatsu, which is deep-fried pork, such as that you might have in a “pork katsu curry”). It’s not my favourite (KOI Ramen, Ramen Sasuke, and best of all Kanada-Ya) but it’s up solidly decent. Anzu is a sister restaurant with an upmarket, smart, look, a more expensive menu, aimed squarely at business lunches, and next door to another new opening, Veneta. They do pretty good tempura-ed vegetables, fish, seafood, pork, although nothing special. Their eponymous rice is a bit of a mess but tastes satisfyingly malty. Their yuzu mayonnaise is just the right balance of creamy and zingy-fresh. (No medals.)

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Manitoba Tigella, Fitzrovia

I’d not heard of tigella before, which apparently is a somewhat-pancake-like, round, patterned, bread from Northern Italy, around four inches in diametre. You fill it with ham, cheese, and so on. Those opening this place, on New Oxford Street a stone’s throw from Tottenham Court Road tube, clearly didn’t think they could centre a whole restaurant on tigella, so they offer a bunch of other stuff too, generic Italian stuff you’ve eaten before. I was there for a launch and while the canapes were mediocre at best, the tigella were pretty interesting: a satisfying chewy give with nice Italian cured meats. I’m not sure I’d go back. (No medals.)

Tang, Fitzrovia

I went to Tang to try some VR goggles (actually one of those things where you slot your phone in) for St Giles hotel chain’s 360 degrees project. That was quite cool. The food they served was from a small restaurant in their London branch, next door to the YMCA seconds away from Tottenham Court Road tube. It’s all solidly decent sort-of-Chinese-sort-of-Asian food: dense deep-fried tofu cubes with a salty limey sauce, rice and slow-cooked beef, noodle soup with chicken. Prices aren’t high, and you could do a lot worse, but also a lot better. (No medals.)

Fuller’s Kitchen, Greenwich

So Fuller’s Kitchen is basically when Fuller’s pubs are a bit more ambitious and have a more kitted out kitchen and sophisticated menu. I tried lots of the dishes and they were mostly a cut above what you’d expect from a pub in both quality and price. Nothing savoury blew me away, but it’s always nice when the steak or duck breast you get is clearly from a decent animal and cooked to the degree you ask for. However, their lemon tart was surprisingly excellent: wobbly, but coherent and resistant to light tugs; sweet and cloying but in a good way. I think I ate a whole (massive) portion. It’s basically decent modern European food but it’s the same price as some excellent examples of the same thing. (No medals.)

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Shake Shack, Fitzrovia

Who knew there’s a Shake Shack right by Tottenham Court Road, where I apparently have been hanging out a lot recently. Shake Shack is one of my top three London burger joints, along with Bleecker St. Burger (the best), and Dip & Flip (the most interesting). Honest Burger, Patty & Bun, Burger Shack, and all the others (please recommend places you think I mightn’t have been to, I’m always curious) are just not quite on the same level. They cannot match the loose, smashed, fatty, juicy patty; they cannot match the American cheese in its gloopy glory; they cannot match the soft, chewy bun that take any level of grease you can throw at it. Yes, their burgers cost £10, yes they are glorified McDonald’s burgers. But McDos is already good. It was the first meat I ate after two years vegetarian, and I’ll be back dozens more times. (Two medals.)

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Newman Arms, Fitzrovia

The Newman Arms has 50% new ownership, but the cook and supplier are still the same, so don’t fret. I went back because the room is beautiful, they offered 300g of Cornish sirloin (Dexter advertised, ended up being Ruby Red which is just fine with me), and it happened to be half off wine the day I went. With that discount included, a bottle between two, mains, small starters, a dessert to share, and service, we spent £38 each, make of that what you will. The service, atmosphere, and food is all still excellent: a deeply beefy, tender slab of meat cooked to perfection. Interesting pickles, excellent caramelised treacly roasted veg of all sorts. Only problem is the “chips” which were wedges and soft and floury rather than crispy on the outside. I lodged my concerns and I am told this is to be fixed: after all it was their first night with the new team. (One medal.)

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The 10 Cases, Covent Garden

You can’t book Barrafina for two, and the queue was unpleasantly long, so I trundled along the road to The 10 Cases, where I had a lovely dinner. Its name comes from the fact they only ever but ten cases of any of the wine they serve, so the menu is constantly chopping and changing. We ate simple but well executed food: tempura broccoli with a hoi sin-esque sauce; deep fried bits of squid far fresher, bouncier, and more lightly but crispily battered than usual; medium-cooked rack of lamb for two (£46, four bones worth). We had an especially amazing Chenin blanc dessert wine which was much butterier than most and less sweet—didn’t even know it was a thing that existed. Also amazing service and dark, candlelit, buzzy atmosphere. Recommend. (One medal.)

Where I’ve been eating this summer

in Features/Restaurants by

I have been out quite a lot in the last few months, but I haven’t written about any of the stuff I’ve eaten. I’ll never get time to review everywhere I’ve eaten in full, but here are some short thoughts and recommendations about all of the spots I’ve visited. I haven’t written anything about it, but of course I’ve been to Good Friend chicken around five times in the last few months, and it remains the best friend chicken you can get.

Macellaio, Southwark

Sam has reviewed Macellaio for SUL (we both went separately during their soft launch), and I mostly agree with what he said. It’s an interesting idea, and the “pissa”—Ligurian pizza but with thicker, fluffier bread, and a tangy yoghurty cheese instead of mozzarella—were pretty good. But they clearly lack a hot enough grill to get a proper char on the outside of otherwise fairly good meat. I got half off because it was a soft launch, and I can’t imagine myself going back at full price. (No Medals)

Olympic Cafe, Waterloo

By contrast, I expect to go back to Olympic Cafe fairly regularly. It’s a barebones, utilitarian, spartan-as-can-be little room with bland decor and tables, and an extremely aggressive waiter/maitre-d lady. It offers only a list of the most generic Chinese foods. And yet, for the price, its quality is extremely impressive: I had a sizeable plate of roast crackling pork with amazingly crispy skin and juicy meat, for just £5! I don’t know whether everything they sell is so impressive, but I want to find out. (One Medal)

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Shackfuyu, Soho

Shackfuyu is a side-project of hipster-ish ramen restaurant Bone Daddies, and it’s been open about two years, seemingly always busy and successful. Their menu is short and to the point, and many dishes had run out by the time we ate, which I always take as a positive. Only about half of the dishes worked, but when they came off they really came off—and the failures were still worthwhile tries. (Verging on One Medal)

The Diner, Covent Garden

I was invited to try “hard tea” cocktails at The Diner. They were okay, but they were too sweet, and didn’t taste sufficiently of tea. Their regular schtick is American-style junk food and it was competent if unexceptional: bacon-wrapped jalapeño poppers, crispy-fluffy sweet potato fries, etc. There are too many places that do this exceptionally to actually go, but nothing I ate made me hate it, as I might have predicted. (No Medals)

Shotgun, Soho

So Shotgun was one of my favourite London restaurants, and maybe still is, but, as Sam sums up very accurately here, their Chicken Dinner menu is absolutely diabolical. If they keep focusing on the BBQ—which they do as well as anywhere, if not better—then they remain a two medal restaurant. When it comes to anything else, they risk being an avoid.

Legs, Hackney

Of all the restaurants I went to, this is the one I wanted to review individually the most. Legs fulfils all of my arbitrary restaurant preferences: short menu, focuses on what it’s good at, few seats, strong flavours, interesting ideas, knows how to cook pork belly properly. I’d wanted to go since I heard about them, but when am I ever in Hackney Central? Don’t miss the pork belly, which they slowly poach, cool, store, then pan fry until the outside is crisp, and serve with sunflower seeds and plum ketchup. Also don’t miss the grilled watermelon with sumac—what a combination! It’s also the right price: there’s no need to spend more than £30 or so a head if you don’t want to. (One Medal)

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Chick n Sours, Covent Garden

The first Chick n Sours, in Haggerston, won plaudits from basically everyone, and many of my friends are hardcore aficionados, regularly making the trip across to eat its fried chicken. So I was pretty excited. But I didn’t really “get it” when I went, perhaps due to dish choice, perhaps due to having bad taste, perhaps just because I chose the wrong dips. I’m going to go back before making a final judgement (it’s not expensive, and I did love the zingy pickled watermelon), but on what I had first time I’d call it no medals. The staff were great though.

The Canonbury Tavern, Highbury

The Canonbury is now one of the two closest pubs to where I live, so I went in to check it out on the very day I moved in. It’s a treasure. I feel so lucky to live in a London where there are 20-30 pubs serving food this great: perfect sticky reduced stock jus; attractively presented king oyster mushrooms; beautiful old England pub glamour surroundings; steaks cooked just how you ask for them; expert use of different bits of game in the way they should be. And good bread. Mains are £15-20, starters and desserts about £6—just what you want. (One Medal)

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The Palomar, Soho

So The Palomar served me probably the best bread dish I’ve eaten this year: Yemeni layered croissant-like bread that was simultaneously fluffy and light but also extremely dense and heavy. I can’t say how that even works, but it does, and I equally did not expect that tahini and a gazpacho-like tomato sauce would be so good to dip in. But they also served me by far the worst pork belly dish I’ve ever eaten, a horrifying mistake of a dish: rubbery, impossible to cut, chewy, and with a bewildering selection of sides whose purposes were completely unclear. God it was terrible. And the rest of the dishes were on a range between those: some totally underwhelming, some satisfying and strongly flavoured (like the deconstructed kebab). I was shocked at the unreliability, given the wide swathe of 10/10 reviews. (No Medals)

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MeatLiquor N1, Islington

Of course, I’ve been to every other Meat-X restaurant, although the MeatWagon that started it all was before my time. They continue to be among the best adverts for London’s burger “scene”, although this time I had a lovely Philly cheesesteak, totally different from the more authentic-seeming one at Liberty Cheesesteaks in Spitalfields Market and good in a totally different way. Dense, moist, juicy, fatty, cheesy meat—if it’s on the specials menu don’t miss out. (One Medal, like their other spots.)

Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Kingston

I’ve been to GBK in Kingston quite a few times, and it’s definitely not great when you compare it to the options you have in London nowadays (Shake Shack, Bleecker St Burger, Dip & Flip). Most people probably like it less than Byron and Five Guys—both of which have a branch in Kingston. But you know, I think it’s totally tolerable, and I don’t mind going whenever my younger brother (who loves the place) wants to. If he’s paying… But I won’t give it a rating because I know Sam & Philip would give it an avoid.

Gaucho Grill, Piccadilly

When I was younger, Gaucho was a Thing. More than Hawksmoor or Goodman, it was the steak restaurant I’d heard of as a child. We went to the Richmond one for my 16th birthday and it was the first time I’d ever eaten food that expensive. Something like £40 for the large fillet. I loved it then, but each time I’ve been back since, I’ve found it less impressive. The last time, before this recent visit, was the last day before two years of vegetarianism, which is sort of like it being my last straight partner before I realised I was gay.

This time, we went for a special £75 menu (but were invited) that was being sold to people around the world to celebrate their birthday. It was called “Divine Bovine” and, honestly, it was garbage, especially for the price. There was one good dish, a slow cooked, tender in the middle, crispy on the outside, bit of beef rib accompanied by hoi sin. The rest was a waste of time, especially the diabolical, undrinkable beef martini, which tasted of beef stock with white spirit. Don’t put on a big meal if your kitchen can’t handle it. The normal restaurant is okay, but I’d honestly rather go to Flat Iron and have two or three of their specials. Gaucho is a big waste of money. (Avoid)

St. Lukes Kitchen, Covent Garden

in Restaurants by

Library, or Lib-rary, as its website URL has it, is a private members club on St. Martin’s Lane right by Trafalgar Square and the Chandos pub. St. Luke’s Kitchen, its restaurant, has just opened up to the public, and as well as normal service, has a bunch of kitchen takeovers and guest chefs lined up over coming months. I went to the regular restaurant and was pretty impressed.

Quail "three ways"
Quail “three ways”

It offers an unfussy menu of regular restaurant offerings done well. Yes, you’ve eaten quail, but it’s still a delight when the skin is properly done to a crisp yet the flesh is still juicy, tender and slightly pink. Yes, you’ve eaten seared tuna—maybe you’ve even seared it yourself—but is it always four tender and mild melt-in-the-mouth tender chunks paired with just the right amount of fiery wasabi?

Seared tuna loin, pickled mooli, cucumber and radish
Seared tuna loin, pickled mooli, cucumber and radish

St. Luke’s Kitchen doesn’t offer any foods you’ve never heard of, and its only gimmick is that there was a book left at every place with the menu in it like a bookmark. It’s a dark semi-underground room with forty seats, excellent service, and beautifully-presented food that is simply very good.

Pan fried sea bass, chard, speck and lentil dressing
Pan fried sea bass, chard, speck and lentil dressing

The menu is short and to-the-point: four starter options (£6.50 to £8.50); five mains (£14.50 to £23.50); four sides (£4.50); and four desserts including cheese.

Little spears of bread with butter, olive oil and balsamic
Little spears of bread with butter, olive oil and balsamic

Perhaps the nicest touch was, surprisingly the bread, which came in javelin-form, with both a pat of unsalted butter and olive oil-submerged balsamic. Of course, I covered my own spear in all three, plus liberally applied salt. Why would anyone want unsalted butter?

Another highlight was the salted caramel ice cream with popcorn. It’s not exactly a new idea but somehow the soft, ultra-dry texture of the popcorn meshes perfectly with the sweet frigid cream, and crumbs, surprisingly, are almost always a good addition to desserts. This time they were honeycomb.

Popcorn ice cream, salted caramel and honeycomb
Popcorn ice cream, salted caramel and honeycomb

We got a side salad, which was as pointless as side salads always are. Not sure how people get away with charging nearly a fiver for about 10 calories of floppy-textured leaves. The second dessert, little cake-like slices of chocolate brownie, was also less impressive: not bad, but essentially the same as something you’d get from Pret or M&S, albeit fresher. Or maybe I just don’t have a taste for chocolate brownies.

St. Luke’s Kitchen is a nice place; the private club atmosphere adds to the experience; and the ambiance is very private and intimate. What’s more they serve no frills takes on the sorts of dishes you see on lots of restaurant menus, impressive in their consistency and quality. I can’t speak for the quality of the future guest chefs, but the standard of the regular fare makes St Luke’s worth keeping in mind.

Score: One medal (for an explanation of our scoring system, see here).

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